Review: ‘Sherlock Holmes: A Game of Shadows’ Is an Elementary Reduction But Still Manages To Find Some Fun

Guy Ritchie was far from the most obvious choice to direct a big budget, period action comedy that hoped to turn the Sherlock Holmes name into a 21st century franchise. But half a billion dollars (worldwide) later he found himself the man behind a monster hit… and its inevitable sequel.

Two years later, that sequel is now a reality, and the question becomes can Ritchie strike gold twice in a row with another entertaining blockbuster? Or has he delivered the Victorian equivalent of Speed 2: Cruise Control

Depending on how you look at it the answer sits somewhere in between. A Game of Shadows brings back the two major players in Sherlock Holmes (Robert Downey Jr.) and Watson (Jude Law), but instead of a generic villain with mysterious motivations we get Arthur Conan Doyle’s most notorious and evil mastermind pulling the strings and doling out the pain. Ritchie’s sequel tries to stick with the first film’s mix of stylish camera work, exciting set pieces, and witty banter between its leads, but unfortunately it falters almost as often as it succeeds.

Things haven’t changed too much for Holmes and Watson since their last adventure. Watson is on the verge of marrying his sweetheart, Mary (Kelly Reilly), and Holmes is busy designing and creating urban camouflage for indoor assassins. The great detective is doing more than just crafting patterned long johns though as he’s also hot on the trail of Professor Moriarty (Jared Harris) who he believes to be behind a series of insidious criminal acts.

Like most sequels to successful films A Game of Shadows hews very close to its predecessor in regard to structure and tone, and while the balance isn’t as sure-footed it hits more often than it misses. Ritchie captures some fun and exciting set pieces including a drawn out fight between Holmes and a murderous Cossack and a chess game played both literally and metaphorically to great effect. The film’s cinematic highlight though is an action/chase sequence through the woods that utilizes sharp cinematography as well as the slow/zoom/speed-up style that was used so well in the first movie.

Less successful is a terribly staged, tone deaf set piece aboard a train that lacks suspense or anything resembling spatial awareness. The entire thing is played with Holmes in drag and as one big laugh fest except it’s entirely chuckle free.

It also highlights one of the script’s handful of issues as some actions and jumps in logic are entirely without explanation. Some conclusions seem pulled out of thin air, and while we know Holmes is a genius we should at least be able to follow his train of thought after the fact. Other problems in the otherwise successful script from husband-and-wife Kieran and Michele Mulroney (Dermot’s sister-in-law and brother!) include dialogue that serves almost exclusively as either exposition or jokes, a meandering second act, and the failure to offer anything of substance to its female characters.

Downey and Law are once again a charismatic duo who banter with the best of them even if Downey seems to be overplaying it at times. As he did with Iron Man and its sequel he seems to feel the follow-up performance needed more… Robert Downey Jr. Not a bad thing for the actor’s fans, but it hurts those who are there for the character. Stephen Fry actually earns more laughs in his turn as Holmes’ brother, Mycroft, as he takes a small role and makes every second count with timing, wit and more than a little skin.

Noomi Rapace is one of the film’s two main additions, and while she was unforgettable in her role as Lisbeth Salander in the Swedish adaptation of Stieg Larsson’s Millenium trilogy here she has nothing much to do. And she does it fairly blandly. Harris comes off much better as the deceptively mild Moriarty who is a truly malevolent genius incapable of resisting a challenge from Holmes. He replaces the need for physical intimidation with a brain that always seems five steps ahead of everyone else.

Sherlock Holmes: A Game of Shadows is a lesser entertainment than its predecessor, but it’s still a fun and exciting adventure that breezes its way from beginning to end. Fans of the first film will still find much to enjoy here and will exit the theater looking forward to Holmes and Watson’s next grand mystery. Others may find it to be more of a mixed bag, but as big screen blockbusters go you can do far worse than this.

The Upside: Forest sequence is fairly stunning; some of the first film’s charm remains through fast and witty banter; ending is well structured; Jared Harris oozes menace.

The Downside: Train sequence is for shit; lack of focus through second act; overly comedic in tone; Noomi Rapace underwhelms due partly to a poorly written character; Rachel who?

On the Side: Noomi Rapace’s co-star from the original Girl With the Dragon Tattoo, Michael Nyqvist, is also making his Hollywood debut this week with Mission: Impossible – Ghost Protocol.

Rob is the Chief Film Critic of Film School Rejects. He doesn't eat cheese on weekdays.

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